Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld
Directed by: Joel Coen (“No Country for Old Men”) and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
Written by: Joel Coen (“No Country for Old Men”) and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
While the Coen brothers have dabbled with western themes in a few of their past films including “The Big Lebowski” and “No Country for Old Men,” the duo has finally tightened up their boot straps and given us their own dusty, old-fashioned take on the genre with such craftsmanship you would think they’ve been doing it for years. Without comparing the film to John Wayne’s original of 1969, the Coen’s version stands on its own with noteworthy performances by Jeff Bridges as a marshall out to get his man and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who steals just about every scene she is in.
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
If there ever was a film to support the theory that no matter how bad things may seem, there is always someone worse off than you, it’s “A Serious Man.” Academy Award-winning directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”) take that central theme and create their best dark comedy since 1996’s brilliant, accent-filled “Fargo.”
In “A Serious Man,” the Coens feature their most defeated film character in Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor who’d feel on top of the world if he could just make it back to rock bottom. It’s almost as if Larry is cursed. The film’s opening scene, which is set in 19th century Eastern Europe, supports that idea as we see a Polish couple invite what may or may not be a “dybbuk” into their home for soup. A dybbuk is a harmful spirit in Jewish folklore.
While the Coens leave the fate of those characters to interpretation, Larry appears to have met his fair share of dybbuks in his lifetime. Set in 1967, he is disrespected by his soon-to-be bar mitzvahed son (Aaron Wolf), who smokes marijuana and listens to Jefferson Airplane, and his ungrateful daughter (Jessica McManus), who is saving money for a nose job. Larry’s troubles start at home but hemorrhage into his work environment.
Along with an aggravated wife (Sari Lennick) pushing for a divorce so she can marrying family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and a slouchy brother (Richard Kind) camping out on his couch and spending most of his time in the bathroom draining the cyst on the back of his neck, Larry’s job also has him wound in knots. One of his students is trying to bribe him for a passing grade and someone has been sending defaming letters about him to the panel in charge of granting him tenure. Slowly but surely, everything Larry has worked for is being pulled away from him.
Despite his problems, Larry is determined to get his life together and to be taken seriously. His longsuffering disposition, however, tells a different story. Larry is pushed around by everyone and accepts it as second nature. His only hope is to find spiritual guidance by setting an appointment to speak to an always-occupied senior rabbi.
“A Serious Man” is an obscure piece of work that very well may be the most provocative film to hit theaters this year. While it is painfully funny, the Coen brothers have also conjured up some uncomfortable questions about faith and religion and dragged them into an unremorseful parable that’s sure to ruffle the feathers of all God-fearing men.
In Coen fashion, the duo controls the film in every aspect. They allow you to see only what they feel is vital. While they may shroud the surface, the emotional intensity still penetrates through each character and scene in both aggravating and mesmerizing ways. One could almost see the Coens winking at each other during the making of “A Serious Man.” It’s all so outrageous, yet so personal. It’s the type of film that will have you talking about it long after the credits roll. Why do bad thing happen to good people? The Coens might not offer answers, but enlightenment is overrated. For them, it’s the tormenting that conveys the most though-provoking ideas about man’s place in the world.
Starring: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”)
It would only be natural if you flinched a bit when you found out the recently Oscar’ed Coen Brothers would return to the comedy genre after their success with the suspenseful and fascinating “No Country for Old Men.” Not since 1998’s “The Big Lebowski” has the genre been good to them, although some may argue “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was a minor triumph.
Still, “Intolerably Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” were not up to form for directors who had helmed one of the best dark comedies of all time in “Fargo.” It’s good to see them slowly finding that niche again in their new film.
In “Burn After Reading,” the nation’s security is in jeopardy (well, sort of) when employees of a local fitness center, including Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), find a disc they think contains top secret CIA information.
With a bitter, recently separated ex-spook named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) on their backs, Chad and Linda decide they are going to milk their discovery as much as possible and see how far blackmailing someone can take them.
Linda, who’s tired of trolling on internet dates sites for the perfect man, has been longing for a few plastic surgery procedures her insurance refuses to cover so she can be more attractive, while peppy Chad is simply excited about being a part of the adventure. Academy Award winner George Clooney (“Syriana”) plays Harry Pfarrer, a delusional governmental employee with food allergies who’s been sleeping around with Osborne’s cold wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). Relationships continue to cross paths in this comedy of errors as the Coens write up a breezy little spoof that pushes the plot in bizarre and sometimes unbelievable ways.
The main problem with “Burn” is that the Coens haven’t developed characters as much as they have created caricatures of real people. It’s different when we’re talking about eccentricities like John Tuturro’s Jesus Quintana in “Lebowski” or even Clooney’s grease-loving Everett in “O Brother” because they seem to be in this completely different world devoid of any sanity. In “Burn,” however, many of the characters feel too manufactured in Anytown, USA. Their exaggerated stupidity can be endearing, but most of the time you’re thinking how no one can possibly be this dumb and needy.
Still, the Coens recipe for humor laden with violence is second to none and all the principal players give enjoyably jovial performances. It really is the Coen’s funniest film since giving us The Dude 10 years ago.